Giants of Thessaly (1960) ***

Spoiler alert – this film contains no giants unless you count the one-eyed Cyclops. It’s the Jason and the Argonauts story with a lot of political shenanigans thrown in.

Even lacking the Ray Harryhausen special effects of the film covering the same ground a few years later and without the kind of budget dropped into the lap of a Stanley Kubrick it’s not a bad stab at retelling the myth. And Carlo Rambaldi (later the creator of E.T.) does a decent job of the Cyclops at a time when special effects were primitive.

This belongs to the Italian-made “peplum” genre, out of which came Hercules (1958). What struck me most was the director’s use of the camera, very often tracking a character in scenes that would otherwise have been static. There are virtually no close-ups and hardly any medium close-ups. It’s quite strange to see.

On the one hand a moving camera is an expense and on the other hand lack of close-ups saves money, so it’s possible the money spent on one technique was the result of saving money from another.

Alternatively, much of the director’s work has gone into arranging characters in group scenes in such a way that dramatic impact is sustained while not moving the camera. There’s enough political chicanery going on to keep two different plots going. Back in Jason’s (Roland Carey) homeland, where he is a king, an usurper not only seeks his throne but wants his wife and tries to deceive the population into thinking Jason is dead.

Meanwhile, Jason faces mutiny on board the Argo and then the temptations of the Siren, battle with the Cyclops, and then a final bold act to reclaim the Golden Fleece. Possibly the best scene is kept for the end, when the Argo arrives home with its own brand of deception. The film is topped off with a clever trick. Sometimes what we would now view as a B-film, ideal Saturday matinee material, sticks in the mind because it has been the proving ground for a future director or star but writer-director Riccardo Freda had already turned out Spartacus the Gladiator (1953) and Theodora, Slave Empress (1954).

Star Roland Carey was unusual in this field because he was actually a trained actor rather than hired for his torso, but this did not exactly stoke his career – his appearance in Fall of the Roman Empire (1962) was uncredited. Female lead Ziva Rodann was unusual, too, in that she was Israeli rather than Italian, had appeared in Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957) and second- billed in exploitationer Macumba Love (1960) and would later play Nefertiti in the Batman television series. If you go in not expecting much, you might get a surprise, though, be warned, the acting is wooden and other special effects, such as the storm, not quite in the Rambaldi class

Genghis Khan (1965) ****

Hollywood was never reined in by the strictures of history, much preferring fiction to fact for dramatic effect, and that’s largely the case here, although the titular hero’s real life remains shrouded in myth.

If you do catch this surprisingly good feature, make sure it’s not one of the many pan-and-scan atrocities on the market. I watched this in the proper Panavision ratio which meant it occupied only one-third of my television screen, but in that format it’s terrific. It’s a bit of an anomaly for a decade that churned out high-class historical epics like El Cid (1961) because this clocks in about a hour short of other films in the genre and there’s no star actor or director to speak of and no Yakima Canutt to handle the second unit action scenes.

Omar Sharif’s marquee value at this point was so low that if you check out any of the original posters you’ll note that his name hardly rates a mention and he also comes at the very end of the opening screen credits. Although this is post-Lawrence of Arabia (1962), it’s pre-Doctor Zhivago (1965), suggesting nobody had a clue how to market his talents.

Director Henry Levin was a journeyman, fifty films under his belt, best known for not a great deal except for, following this, the second and third in the Matt Helm spy series. Given this film was critically ignored on release and since, and a flop to boot, it definitely falls into the “Worth a Look” category. Although there are few stand-out scenes of the artistic variety such as pepper Lawrence of Arabia or El Cid, this is still well put together and Levin shows an aptness for the widescreen.

The narrative breaks down into three parts – the first section describing enslavement of Genghis Khan (Omar Sharif) by nemesis Jamuga (Stephen Boyd – the picture’s star according to poster and screen credits) – before banding together rival tribes in revolt; the second part a long trek to China; and the third encompassing a final battle and hand-to-hand combat with Jamuga. For a two-hour picture it has tremendous sweep, not just the scenery and the battle scenes, but political intrigue, romance, a rape scene and even clever comedy. Genghis Khan  believes his glory is predestined, but he has very modern ideas about the role of women.

The best section, oddly enough, is set in China where Genghis engages in a duel of wits with the distinctively contradictory Emperor (Robert Morley), but that’s not to detract from the film’s other qualities, the action brilliantly handled, especially the chaos of battle, the romance touching, and the dialog intelligent and often epigrammatic.

Unlike James Mason (Age of Consent, 1969) who makes a calamitous attempt at a Chinese accent, Robert Morley (Some Girls Do, 1969), costume apart and looking as if he has just walked out of an English country house, but his plummy tones belie a very believable character. Stephen Boyd (Assignment K, 1968) shines as the villain of the piece. Telly Savalas (Battle of the Bulge, 1965) and Woody Strode (The Professionals, 1966) have decent parts as Khan’s s sidekicks, the former unexpectedly bearing the brunt of the film’s comedy. French actress Francoise Dorleac (Billion Dollar Brain, 1967) is effective as Sharif’s wife.

Hitchcock stole one of his most famous ideas from Genghis Khan. About the only scene in Torn Curtain (1966) to receive universal praise was a killing carried out to a soundtrack of nothing more than the grunts of assailant and victim. But, here, where the score by Yugoslavian composer Dusan Radic was extensively employed, the rape scene is silent and just as stunning. If the only prints widely available are of the pan-and-scan variety I’m not surprised the film has been for so long overlooked, but if you can get hold of one in the preferred format you will be in for a surprise.      

Mister Moses (1965) ***

The “lost” Robert Mitchum picture, never seen on VHS or DVD, but now turning up on YouTube.

Elephants have little proven appeal for audiences. From Dumbo (1941), Hannibal (1960), Billy Rose’s Jumbo (1962) and Hannibal Brooks (1968) through to Dumbo (2017) and Babylon (2022), the story is one of negative impact on box office. Baby elephants are maybe a different story – see Hatari! (1962)  – but there’s very little that’s cuddly about the adult version and their main purpose appears to be to annoy a major stars initially and then go on a rampage that either hinders or helps said star. If you’re acquainted with elephants, you’ll notice this is of the tameable Asian variety rather than the untamed African.

The unnamed beast here would fall into the former category except the eponymous Mister Moses (Robert Mitchum) – real name Joe – can talk to the animal in a language it understands and persuade it to show off its parlor tricks, enhancing Moses’s status among a small  community in Kenya. Moses is a con-man-cum-diamond smuggler, rescued from a river, specifically the reeds growing there that offer a Biblical connection to the natives.

The Bible plays a significant role here, though the natives don’t fall for the Noah story as explained by missionary (Alexander Knox). They are, like Native Americans, being driven off their land by the arrival of a dam which will flood their traditional grounds. Their cattle have not been included in the grand plan to airlift the entire community. So they refuse government help, hence the need to embark on a 300-mile trek.

Moses, a dodgy character with “an allergy to badges of authority”, is blackmailed by the missionary’s daughter Julie (Carroll Baker) and ends up doing the job of her fiancé, district commissioner Robert (Ian Bannen), to shift the natives off their land. He’s got some parlor tricks up his sleeve, too, including a flame-thrower which, again the old Biblical touch, he can employ to burn a bush, thus endearing himself as a leader.  

Naturally, enough, though staid, Julie finds herself attracted to Moses, a somewhat laid-back character with quite a line in hip patter. But it’s quite a stretch for Julie to be seduced by his knowledge of classical literature, namely the Andromeda-Perseus tale. Not everyone takes to Moses’ leadership, saboteurs steal the map and the compass.  And it’s no surprise when someone finds another purpose for the flame-thrower. There’s a bad witch doctor Ubi (Raymond St Jacques) to be put in his place, and Joe rises out of his lethargy long enough to dispose of a couple of villains.

With the emphasis on the Biblical, Joe is called upon to “part the waters” Exodus-style. Disappointingly, this is a bit of a parlor trick. It had me wondering how the heck he was going to do that,  with just a flame thrower and an elephant at his disposal, and also given that the sole purpose of rivers in African movie vernacular is so that the leading lady can bathe in one. Since the aforementioned river is nothing more than the outcome of another dam, Moses is clever enough to simply persuade the dam superintendent to – miracle of miracles – to turn off the water.

There’s enough going on to maintain interest and the will-she-won’t-she element is well-handled and there’s a good final line, “What’ll I do for laughs?”

Robert Mitchum has been here before (Rampage, 1963) but this time is on the side of the animals. Of course, the main interest is not how well he gets on with the elephant but whether he strikes sparks with a Carroll Baker (Harlow, 1965) eschewing her normal sexy persona. A cross between Hayley Mills and Deborah Kerr, Baker doesn’t quite suggest bottled-up sexual energy fizzing to get out, but then that wouldn’t be in character. It’s not in The African Queen league in terms of screen partnerships but it’s certainly workable enough.

Ian Bannen (The Flight of the Phoenix, 1965) is at his scowling best although Raymond St Jacques (Uptight, 1968) gives him a run for his money. Director Ronald Neame (Gambit, 1966) proved as adept at handling the big-name stars as the animals without it being acclaimed as a famous “lost” work of Mitchum. The screenplay by Charles Beaumont (Night of the Eagle/Burn, With, Burn, 1962) and Monja Danischewsky (Topkapi, 1964) was based on the novel by Max Catto (Seven Thieves, 1960).

A pleasant enough diversion.

Hannibal Brooks (1969) ***

Gruff British star Oliver Reed shows his tender side in this entertaining offbeat POW escape picture. With local German men called up for war, Berlin Zoo relies on local prisoners-of-war to help look after the animals. Stephen Brooks (Oliver Reed) is detailed to look after an elephant (considerably more discreet in his toilette than those employed on Babylon). When Berlin is bombed, Brooks takes the elephant to Innsbruck in Austria.

His nickname is a bit of a misnomer. You would think he was going to emulate his famous predecessor and take the elephant over the Alps and into Italy, which would be possibly a safe destination because at this stage of the war the Americans have invaded and are marching north. But, instead, sadly, he only plans to make it as far as neutral Switzerland, where he would be equally safe.

Naturally he is pursued – and captured, and pursued and captured. But there always seems to be a convenient pile of logs that, a la Swiss Family Robinson, can be weaponised. And should you need any obstacle pulled down, well, an elephant comes in pretty handy on that score too.

Ineffectual American escapee Packy (Michael J. Pollard) turns up from time to time, usually in some piece of action that goes wrong, once to interrupt a romantic dalliance with Brooks’ occasional companion Anna (Maria Brockefhoff). And this being the Tyrol, it seems a shame not to halt proceedings every once in a while to take in a marching band or a traditional wedding or fair and for every damsel to have her cleavage on display.

Heading up the pursuit is Colonel von Haller (Wolfgang Preiss) although you might imagine he had more important things on his mind at this stage of the war than chase an elephant. Various troopers are so easily duped by Brooks they might have gone under the collective expression of “dolts.”

Where the elephant has to take the long way – he could as easily have been called “Slowly” – the Germans can travel by road, rail and cable car. It’s pretty episodic stuff, enlivened here and there by explosions and gunfights and the like and the question of whose side Anna is really on.

In some respects it’s a buddy picture. When the buddy is the elephant it works pretty well. Brooks is surprisingly tender and caring. But when Packy enters the equation and it’s the old question of three into two won’t go it becomes a bit lopsided. You get the impression it’s one of these picture that, to accommodate the budget, required an American star and Michael J. Pollard, with his already-established schtick, was nearest to hand.

It’s just as well Reed has toned down his scene-stealing growls and sideways glances because nobody can steal a scene like Pollard. If the elephant was ever in the slightest genuine danger, then you might have had a better picture, but nobody in those days was going to slaughter such a magnificent beast just to give a movie a harder edge.

Elephant is surplus to requirements in this action-based poster.

So the harder edge never comes, and it skips along uneasily between gentle comedy and action, with a potential screen partnership of unlikely personalities never quite gelling. If director Michael Winner had stuck with Reed and the elephant it would probably have worked much better. Or if the escapees had to blow up some vital factory or carry out another mission deep inside enemy territory it might have carried more narrative thrust.

It’s like two separate pictures, Reed and the elephant and Pollard and his bunch of generally hapless escapees. Harmless enough stuff and interesting mostly for seeing Oliver Reed upending his usual screen persona.

At this point in his career, Michael Winner (You Must Be Joking, 1965) was better known for comedy so perhaps this was his passport to suggesting to Hollywood he could handle action. Certainly, it suggested he could merit a bigger budget, for his next movie was The Games (1970) before stepping into the more comfortable territory of Lawman (1971).

I’d suggest this was equally a stepping stone for Reed (The Assassination Bureau, 1969). This film is largely ignored in assessments of the changes to his acting style that he made to accommodate the critically-acclaimed Women in Love (1969). And you can certainly draw a development line between the Michael J. Pollard of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and his character in Little Fauss and Big Halsy (1970) where he successfully buddied up with Robert Redford. Dick Clement (The Jokers, 1967) devised the screenplay from a story by the director and Tom Wright, on whose own story of being a POW zookeeper this is based.

Most movies perceived as stepping stones are made of stronger material, and although this is more lightweight, it’s entertaining enough and certainly helped director and both stars switch career tracks.

Sword of Lancelot / Lancelot and Guinevere (1963) ***

The legend is knotty. On the one hand it’s the most chivalric period in history. Excalibur, The Holy Grail, the feudal-tyranny-busting power-sharing democracy of The Round Table, and before Harry Potter came into view the most celebrated wizard of all time in the shape of Merlin. On the other hand, love was a pawn. Women were traded to cement relationships between rival kingdoms. And humans were all too fallible.

For a start, you had a king, Arthur, who couldn’t keep it in his pants and had already sired a bastard son Mordred who had his own ideas about inheritance. Then you had the king’s champion, Lancelot, who had a similar problem, except in his case he couldn’t keep his hands off the king’s new wife, Guinevere.

To pull off this love story, and keep the audience onside, you needed actors of a high caliber otherwise it sinks to a tawdry tale of adultery and betrayal. Unfortunately, there’s no Robert Taylor-Elizabeth Taylor (Knights of the Round Table, 1951) to hand and the combination of Cornel Wilde and his wife Jean Wallace doesn’t have the same ring or impact.

So, wisely, Cornel Wilde who doubles – make that quadruples – as director, co-writer and co-producer as well as star, concentrates on action, far more than in other swashbucklers of the decade such as Pirates of Tortuga (1961) and King’s Pirate (1967). Wilde has genre credentials, outside of Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power, with At Sword’s Point (1952) to his credit.

And you can’t help taking a liking to a swashbuckler which begins with a joke about soap, and then carries the same riff through to the obligatory bathing scene, where the act of physical washing, rather than merely splashing about in the nude for audience titillation purposes, sparks the relationship between the doomed couple.

This version of the story begins with the French king reneging on the deal to marry his daughter to King Arthur and demanding the matter be settled in the traditional manner, one-to-one combat. Lancelot is elected the English champion. By the time he returns home, complication lies in his wake. It’s not long before suspicions are aroused, Guinevere unable to keep emotions in check when she imagines Lancelot wounded in battle. Indiscretion gets the better of them and when Lancelot is discovered leaving her bedchamber, it’s all lovelorn systems go. Condemned to death for adultery, she needs rescued from a burning pyre.

Guilt ruins exile. Lancelot is now a reluctant rebel. And sex is off the agenda. Matters are only settled in the most drastic fashion, one that ensures an ending to rival Casablanca (1942). Action compensates for acting – Wilde runs the gamut of emotions from grimace to grin while Wallace over-acts – with a number of well-managed battle scenes.

The pick is Lancelot leading an army against raping pillaging Vikings. Apparently impregnable behind a lake that prevents attack on three sides, the Vikings don’t expect the English to block off their escape by setting the forest on fire, forcing them to charge through the water to Lancelot’s waiting troops. Another pitched battle is equally well-handled with thundering horses, each side trading volleys of arrows, and a clever flanking movement.

Although a relative novice behind the camera, Wilde is not afraid to experiment. Tracking cameras are extensively used as is limited point-of-view (opponent viewed through a vizor) although he does resort on occasion to older tricks like speeding up film so foot soldiers resemble Olympic sprinters.

And there is a sprinkling of other jokes and observations. A courtier mangles a visitor’s name in Court Jester fashion. Church bells ring because someone is battering the hell out of the iron casing. A rhymer is on hand to mock. A trumpeter is killed before he can sound the retreat. An old crone chomping on an apple settles in to watch a burning at the stake.

Obviously, in my search for a 1960s swashbuckler, I take the blame for bringing this to your attention. While lacking the charisma of Doug McClure and Jill St John in King’s Pirate  and the acting not rising much above the levels of Pirates of Tortuga, this outshines both in the action department.

Plane (2023) **** – Seen at the Cinema

Gerard Butler is pure Ronseal. “It does what it says on the tin” goes that advert. And so does Butler. You want action, he is first in the queue, and he delivers. But our Gerard is no Bruce Willis and doesn’t pretend he can do it all on his own. Not only does he enlist a murderer, an elite military force is also in due course on his side. You’d think that would leave Gerard with little to do, but you’d be wrong.

He’s the moral center and the driving force and of course he’s the pilot. the only one who can get them in and out. Just as well there’s someone to do things by the book because his employers, desperate to make PR spin their way, are as cynical as they come, sending a pilot to fly through a storm to save a few bucks on fuel.

So, New Year’s Eve, widower Brodie (Gerard Butler) on a plane with only a handful of passengers crash lands on a remote island in the South China Seas where cut-throat separatists run a hostage business. Brodie frees murderer and ex-Foreign Legionnaire Louis (Mike Colter) and sets out to make contact with home. Meanwhile, back at the office, troubleshooter du jour Scarsdale (Tony Goldwyn) sends in a bunch of mercenaries. So it’s mostly escape and capture, you know the drill.

At least, at last, it’s not an airplane picture about apportioning blame after a disaster or stitching up the captain (Flight, 2012/Sully, 2016). There’s no ballast: no pregnant woman or child on board, not even a nun, and the pilot doesn’t have the hots for a stewardess and the criminal doesn’t hunker down at night and home in on audience sympathies with a heartrending tale, and there’s no retired airman called into service one last time, and it’s not the pilot’s final trip before retirement and there’s no wizard engineer who can put back together a broken machine and it’s not about everyone pulling their weight in a tight spot.

The passengers, those that survive that is, might be mildly annoying on the plane but once landed they’re too busy being terrified to make a nuisance of themselves. So it’s pretty realistic for what could otherwise have been a pure gung-ho actioner. When Brodie does get through to his company, he gets treated as a time-waster. And there’s really no way, realistically, without the intervention of mercenaries that he’s going to get the passengers off the island on his own.

In some senses it’s kind of two different movies jammed together in occasional clunky fashion and you wonder if initially it was devised as a pure rescue number before someone had the bright idea of bringing a star in as the pilot.

Brodie might be a rough diamond, but he sure can fly, witness two crash landings and a take-off hindered by enemy rocket launchers. He’s a true Scot, wouldn’t “lower himself” to be tabbed English, although the scriptwriters make an elementary howler in imagining that the traditional New Year dinner is haggis, neeps and tatties when it’s actually steak-and-kidney pie.

And the myth that a Scottish accent will get you through more doors than an English one, and that you’ll soon be nattering away convivially with your captors about Sir Sean and wee drams and kilts, is quickly exploded. Nationality in international war zones is mere currency. Brodie, of course, has to take one (more than one, actually) for the team but is happy to put himself in harm’s way to safeguard his charges.

Luckily, Louis has no such reservations, primarily with his own interests at heart, intent on escaping official clutches and disappearing into the jungle with a cache of cash.

This is Butler reinvented as Everyman. Yep, action abungo but humane with depths. With an astonishing 70 credits and too many supposedly star-making outings to count he has an equally diverse range, can hold his own against top female stars like Angeline Jolie (Lara Croft, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life), Katharine Heigl (The Ugly Truth, 2009) and Jennifer Aniston (The Bounty Hunter, 2010) but these days is more likely to be the go-to actioneer. I am hoping that some Hollywood producer might recognise his other qualities and pitch him a drama like A Man Called Otto. Imagine that snarl in your neighborhood.

You get exactly what you pay for here, for workmanlike read spare and lean, for reimagining previous rescue pictures read tension-filled character-driven edge-of-your-seat action. Butler brings tremendous humanity to a role that could as easily have been muscle-bound.

I’m less familiar with Mike Colter (Carter, 2022) but sensibly he underplays his role. Danielle Pineda (Jurassic World: Dominion, 2022) is good as the level-headed chief stewardess and Tony Goldwyn (Ghost, 1990) makes a sinister troubleshooter. MTA Kelly Gale makes her debut.

A welcome return to pedal-to-the-metal form for director Jean-Francois Richet (Mesrine, 2008) who employs hand-held cameras to great effect. Marks the screen debut of thriller writer Charles Cumming along with J.P. Walsh (The Contractor, 2022).

This is ideal counter-programming when we’re mired down in the Oscar-worthy.

You can’t go wrong with Butler.

King’s Pirate (1967) ****

Swell show. Virtually every movie Doug McClure (Beau Geste, 1966) made was under-rated, mostly due to his presence, but here he is at his impish cavalier best in a swashbuckler that rather than offering a re-tread goes in for clever reversals, running jokes and a healthy dose of the flashing blade. While McClure is no Errol Flynn (Against All Flags, 1952) he would be a safe match for Tyrone Power and Jill St John (Come Blow Your Horn, 1963) as his nemesis/lover could give the pirate picture’s most reliable spitfire, Maureen O’Hara (Against All Flags), a run for her money.

Well, actually, it is a bit of a re-tread, a spirited good-humored remake of Against All Flags, and  follows the same story as Pirates of Tortuga (1961) of good guy infiltrating a pirate stronghold by pretending to be a buccaneer. But the locale has shifted a good three thousand miles to Madagascar, ideally placed to plunder cargo ships en route to India, and it would be hard to argue that Lt Brian Fleming’s (Doug McClure) motivation is pure, given he is expecting major financial reward for risking his life. 

Still, to complete his disguise, he submits to a flogging. His task is to incapacitate the cannons that protect the island from Royal Navy invasion. But his team is somewhat unusual, a bunch of acrobats headed by Zucco (Kurt Kasznar) which ensures he can avoid the wall/cliff-climbing normally associated with such endeavors. Having just about convinced pirate king John Avery (Guy Stockwell), Fleming’s mission runs into trouble when Mogul’s daughter Princess Patna (Mary Ann Mobley) falls in love with him after he saves her from a burning ship, though admittedly one he had helped set on fire. He falls foul, too, of “Mistress” Jessica (Jill St John), the island’s de facto ruler and accomplished femme fatale, expert swordswoman, but a la Pirates of Tortuga with a yen to be a “lady.”

So, basically, he has to dodge the suspicious Avery, and put off the princess while trying to woo Jessica in order to find a secret map of the cannon locations.

The island’s preferred style of execution is staking men at the water’s edge and letting the rising tide do the rest. When Fleming, on initial arrival on the island, gulps at this demonstration of barbarity, you probably don’t guess this will happen to him. It’s just one a litany of reversals that make this a delight.

Talking of reversals and delights, how about the Indian princess speaking in a Scottish accent, courtesy of her governess, the fearsome Miss MacGregor (Diana Chesney)?

Not to mention Jessica’s habit of making her romantic inclinations known at gunpoint. Unusually lacking in the female ability of expressing her emotions, Jessica’s actions tend to be the opposite of her stated intention, resulting in, having given Fleming the brush-off, bidding against him in the slave market for Princess Patna to avoid the Indian lass getting her romantic claws into him. But not only is Jessica expert with the sword she is a crack shot and can shoot the end off a rapier.

Of course, when his sword can’t do the talking. Fleming has to weasel his way out of many a dicey situation with an inventiveness that would do Scheherazade proud.

All in all the best pirate film of the decade – though there wasn’t much competition. Competently made with McClure and St John striking cinematic sparks with former Miss America Mary Ann Mobley (Istanbul Express, 1968) happily cooperating in turning her character into a comedic gem.

While there’s certainly a touch of the Tony Curtis in McClure’s portrayal it is also his stab at carving out a position as a jaunty leading man. Jill St John, given a lot more to do than in most of her pictures, takes the opportunity to shine. Guy Stockwell (Beau Geste) delivers another villain.

Don Weiss (Billie, 1965) directed and does exceptionally well steering audiences away from unfulfillable expectation, given the low budget, by focusing on the qualities of the stars and a ripping tale knocked out by television comedy writer Paul Wayne, who rewrote or incorporated material from Aeneas MacKenzie and Joseph Hoffman responsible for the original.

Catch it on YouTube.

Pirates of Tortuga (1961) ***

In the absence of A-list swashbuckling talent like Errol Flynn (Captain Blood, 1935), Tyrone Power (The Black Swan, 1942) and Burt Lancaster (The Crimson Pirate, 1952) or spitfires in the mold of Maureen O’Hara (The Black Swan) and Jean Peters (Anne of the Indies, 1951) this sidesteps casting issues and in the kind of reversal that sent Pirates of the Caribbean on its merry way for the most part takes the comedic route of putting pirate moll Mg (Leticia Roman) center stage and twisting the usual blockade narrative so that it’s Privateer of the Century Henry Morgan (Robert Stephens) controlling the high seas.

Charge with stopping the pirate is sea captain Bart (Ken Scott). But most of the running in the first half is made by Meg, a thief turned stowaway, whose efforts to acquire the standing of a lady are initially mocked by the crew until they soften towards her, in part with seduction in mind and in part out of pity. But after landing in Jamaica, and mistaken for a Lady, she steps up to the plate, and manages to catch the romantic eye of the Governor before readjusting her sights and snaring Bart.

Bart and his crew infiltrate the buccaneer kingdom and spy out its flaws before arranging for a full-out attack. Boldly rewriting history, something of a surprise since Morgan the Pirate had appeared a year earlier, this Morgan is a shifty alcoholic. Once the action gets going, including a clever ambush of one pirate ship, it has enough swordfights to keep a regular swashbuckling enthusiast happy. There are some nice touches, Pee Wee (Dave King), the de facto fencing instructor, is lefthanded and wears a black glove whose use is historically accurate. The ships in full sail are impressive, the locations work well and it makes good use of Cinemascope color while Meg remains larcenous throughout rather than the good moll of previous entertainments. Though you might not be so impressed by the bear wrestling.

Ken Scott makes the best of a thin script, ignoring Meg’s wiles, and outwitting Morgan. Apart from Roman, who steals the show, British comedian Dave King (Strange Bedfellows, 1965), in his movie debut, is the pick, a jocular personality with lechery a stock-in-trade. I better point out you can spot John Richardson (One Million Years B.C, 1965) otherwise he is so insignificant a performer you would scarcely know he is there.  Robert Stephens (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 1969) turns Morgan into a scallywag rather than a threatening villain.

Worth noting was just how long it took a graduate of the Twentieth Century Fox talent school to graduate – at the end of a five-year contract Ken Scott (Desire in the Dust, 1960) finally achieved leading man status.   Leticia Roman (The Spy in the Green Hat, 1967) was a bit more savvy and turned down a Fox contract in favor of Hal B. Wallis who cast her instead in G.I. Blues (1960). Technically belonging to the European import category of actress so popular during the decade, she never worked in her homeland before being scouted by Wallis. Though she was born in Italy her father, a costume designer, had moved to the U.S. in the late 1950s.  

Producer Sam Katzman, who had just signed a four-picture deal with Fox, made 239 films in every genre,  including Tim McCoy westerns, the Leo Gorcey Bowery Boys series,  Bela Lugosi as The Ape Man (1943), Jungle Jim (1948), Paul Henreid in Last of the Buccaneers (1950),  Mysterious Island (1951), 3D Fort Ti (1953) and Rock Around the Clock (1956) as well as a slew of 1960s Presley musicals.  

On a miserly budget of just $675,000, the sea scenes were shot in the Fox water tank. Robert D. Webb (The Cape Town Affair, 1967) directed.

A harmless trifle with decent action and Leticia Roman turning upside-down the genre female lead.

No need to fork out on a DVD. You can catch this on YouTube.

RRR (2022) *****

It’s unusual for the esteemed New York Film Critics Circle to be taking a lead from me. But, happening upon this, my first encounter with Bollywood, on an otherwise quiet Monday cinema outing, I have been championing it ever since, though not always to an appreciative audience.  So I was somewhat astonished – and rather delighted – to discover that the New York Film Critics has just bestowed its annual Best Director Award to S.S. Rajamouli for R.R.R.

In honor of that achievement I am reprinted my original review below.

Easily the most extraordinary epic I have seen in a long time. Hitting every action beat imaginable, a stunning tour de force that ranks alongside the best Michael Bay or Steven Spielberg can offer. As if Rambo or John Wick had turned up a century ago. If films could go from 0 to 100 in ten seconds, this would be the prime contender. Astonishing sequences include a cop taking on a mob single-handed with only a stick for a weapon, a villager acting as bait for a tiger, wild animals leading an attack on a fort, a savage beating with a nail-studded whip, and the unforgettable image of one man mounted on another spraying bullets with two rifles. 

Following the virtual abduction of a native girl Milla, two friends are on a collision course in the oppressive British regime in India in 1920. Technically, it doesn’t count as a kidnapping because British Governor Scott Buxton (Ray Stevenson) hasn’t, in his eyes, committed a  crime, merely taking the child as a gift for his wife (Alison Doody). Villager Bheem (N.T. Rama Rao Jr.) is tasked with bringing the girl back, ambitious undercover cop Raju (Ram Charam) with stopping him. The two men, befriending each other in Delhi, are unaware of the other’s plan. That both are immensely likeable, if quite opposite, characters, creates terrific charisma, and their bromance is entirely believable.

Everything in this picture is big and bold except when it is intimate and small. There is a beautifully-observed romance between Bheema and a kind British woman Jenny (Olivia Morris), the development of which, faced with the obstacle of neither understanding the other’s language, with Raju acting as matchmaker, could have been a film on its own. There are two brilliant pieces of screenwriting, phrases repeated throughout that acquire deeper meaning as the story unfolds. The British continually kill by brutal means rather than waste an expensive bullet; “Load. Aim. Shoot,” is a mantra taught the young Raju by his revolutionary father; both come into play at the climax.

The British are horrific. The Bheema-Jenny meet-cute occurs when the native is beaten for inadvertently embarrassing a British soldier. Lady Buxton is a sadist, determined to see a man whipped till he bleeds to death. By contrast, the two heroes are often far from heroic, Bheema unable to find the girl, Raju forced into terrible violence as a consequence of ambition. And in the midst of all this ramped-up violence perhaps the best scene of all, albeit one of conflict, is an energetic dance-off between the two men and the scions of the British upper class, the fantastic “Naatu Naatu” sequence.

Director S.S. Rajamouli (Baahubali: The Beginning, 2015) makes as bold a use of narrative structure as Tarantino in Pulp Fiction, withholding until the last third of the movie a flashback which tilts the story in a completely different direction. But there is nothing lumbering about this epic, it has an incredible drive, an energy to set your head spinning. Even so, Rajamouli utilises a classic three-part structure and the three-hour-plus running time is anything but sprawling. In among a host of character-driven scenes he knows how to build a sequence, as the heroes successively triumph and fail with every passing minute, and among the introductory sequences for both main characters are some inspired images. Cleverly seeding the story creates a variety of twists, turns and reversals.

I was expecting not to like the traditional dancing sequences, which you would thought ill-fitting in a picture of this scope, but the “Naatu Naatu” sequence is treated as virtually a rebellion with tremendous dramatic impact. Although the two leads are muscular in the Schwarzenegger/Stallone mold it does not prevent them channelling their inner Gene Kelly.

Except that it is set a century ago, this has all the bravura hallmarks of MCU, an exceptional adventure told at top speed that does not put a foot wrong. 

N.T. Rama Rao Jr  (Janatha Garage, 2016) has the more difficult role, in that he switches from full-on action hero to romantic klutz. But the intensity of Ram Charam (Vinaya Vidheya Rama, 2019) should have Hollywood calling. The characters played by Ray Stevenson (Accident Man, 2018) and Alison Doody (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, 1989) are more one-dimensional but no less terrifying for that.

On energy and cinematic imagination alone, this would more than pass muster but S.S. Rajamouli has also created a brilliant piece of entertainment with greater depths than you might imagine.

This movie cries out to be seen on the big screen and maybe, in light of the NYFCC Award, your local arthouse might see fit to re-book it. Otherwise you will cn catch it on Netflix.

Rampage (1963) ***

A more misleading title you’d struggle to find. There’s no sign of a rampage until the last 20 minutes, and even then it plays out on a rooftop in a city. Not a patch, action-wise, on Howard Hawks’ Hatari! the previous year, but sharing the female lead Elsa Martinelli. More romantic drama than jungle adventurer, and not much Malaysian jungle at that given Hawaii was the stand-in.

Big on metaphor, women viewed as trophies to boost the male ego or requiring male protection. Surprisingly contemporary with reference to the grooming of young women. Though Hatari! went down the same line, hunting animals for zoos rather than sport, this again take  contemporary approach, animal conservation seen as a battle of cultures, between men for whom shooting an elephant or a rhino reinforces their macho tendencies, and those who want to preserve rare wildlife for future generations.  

Trapper Harry (Robert Mitchum) and hunter Otto (Jack Hawkins) team up to capture for a German zoo two tigers and a legendary panther-like creature known as “The Enchantress.” From the outset, sexual tension sizzles between Harry and Otto’s young partner Anna (Elsa Martinelli). Although Otto is possessive, he permits Anna to take male companions on the assumption that she will always return to him.

Anna’s not quite as submissive as Otto would like to believe and she puts Harry in his place more than once. There’s a 35-year age difference between Otto and Anna. But Harry is disturbed at how they became lovers, persistently asking how soon, after the older man saved the orphaned girl from poverty, he seduced her.

The love triangle is set against a more primitive background where women have no rights and are as likely to be offered up to any passing male. Native guide Talib (Sabu) feels duty-bound to pass his wife onto to Harry. The wife not only acquiesces, but is insulted when the American refuses.

The men represent different cultures, Otto a marksman who prefers to bring his trophies back dead, hanging his virility on every scalp, Harry more emancipated for whom capture is enough. There’s a stand-off with a local tribe when Otto is too hasty with his rifle.

Martinelli does better here in terms of panther, the creature in the film was
more of a leopard with some red marks.

Given the lack of budget and the consequent lack of action, it’s no surprise that the drama revolves around whether Anna will betray her lover. Despite his apparent laid-back approach, Otto watches Anna with an obsessive eye, her potential loss deemed a blow not just to his esteem but a sign of approaching death.

What sets this aside from the submissive female trope is that the decision rests with Anna. Harry certainly doesn’t push his luck and until his pride is dented Otto allows the situation to play out. The shift in Anna’s feelings is discreetly rather than dramatically handled. The traditional bathing scene is used to reveal that Anna is not actually married and therefore neither committing adultery nor under legal obligation.

When we finally get down to some action, the build-up is interesting, Harry using beaters to nudge tigers towards his traps, but, unfortunately the majority of these animals are a disgrace to their wild forefathers, on the whole appearing pretty obliging if not outright dumb. There’s one charging rhino and, heaven forfend, Otto commits the cardinal son of requiring two bullets to finish it off.

The movie picks up when they encounter “The Enchantress,” by a long way the smartest beast in this particular animal kingdom, who enhances her mythical status by hiding in a cave, clash of personalities between the alpha males triggering the movie’s final, more dynamic, phase, Anna coming into her own not just as a crack shot but as an independent woman, Otto making Harry his prey.

More interesting as an examination of contemporary mores, not quite as sexist as initially it appears, and nudging in the direction of a woman attempting to attain independence, and in discussing the issues surrounding conservation. Just as bold is the questioning of Otto’s motivation is saving Anna from poverty, an act of kindness or grooming? You might wonder how much better off Anna would be with a man two decades older rather than one three decades older, but nobody goes there.

The acting is uniformly under-played. Elsa Martinelli is given a better showcase for her talents here than in Hatari! and this is Robert Mitchum (Five Card Stud, 1968) at his laid-back best while Jack Hawkins (Masquerade, 1965) keeps his simmering under control until the end.

Without the budget to ape Hatari! director Phil Karlson (The Secret Ways, 1961) has no option but to focus on characters rather than animals, but finds interesting ways to put various messages across. Marguerite Roberts (Five Card Stud) and Robert I. Hope (White Commanche, 1968) based their screenplay on the novel by Alan Caillou a.k.a Alan Lyle-Smith.

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